Know Your Opponent: Memphis

Memphis is an improved football team this season. The Tigers are 2-1 and their only loss was at UCLA by a touchdown. Phil Stukenborg, a veteran reporter at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, covers the Tigers. He gives us a little more insight to their season so far.

Spirit: How are the Tigers different this season than in the recent past when they weren’t nearly as competitive? The past two years they were 7-17.

Phil: “I think it’s a reflection of the third year under a very good coaching staff. They’re starting to buy in to all that Justin Fuente brought in terms of how they run practices, the pace of their offense, what he demands. It’s so different now watching a practice than when he first came in. I think all that has come into play. They’ve also done a real good job of identifying talent and getting people they know they can develop, which has been the history of the better runs Memphis has had. Coaches that can really identify talent that is slightly under the radar.”

Spirit: Tell us a little more about quarterback Paxton Lynch. He seems to be getting the job done.

Phil: “He went through some growing pains last year, if you can do that at 6-foot-7. But, seriously, he’s more comfortable on the field, has more command of the huddle, not afraid to get on guys. He’s improved his technique, his fundamentals, his throwing motion. He has great touch on the deep ball. He’s very accurate, either rolling out to his right or making that tough throw to his left. There’s some poise and he showed that at UCLA. He looked like he belonged from the first series out there.”

Spirit: What about the Tigers defense?

Phil: “Last year the strength of the team was the defense, and this year the team is a little more balanced. Defensively they’re solid. The front seven coming back was the strength of the team. They lost senior defensive end Martin Ifedi, who was the most honored defensive player they had in the (2014) preseason. He made every one of those watch lists. He was among the nation’s sack leaders a year ago. He got hurt and will be out for a while. They were also without a starting linebacker the first three games. And it shows the gains they’ve made in recruiting, because they didn’t miss a whole lot when they lost two key starters.”

Spirit: What about special teams this season?

Phil: “The kicker (Jake Elliott) is a returnee who was solid last year. He set a school record with the longest field goal. He’s back. They lost their first-team All-American punter. There are two guys that are punting (Spencer Smith and Nick Jacobs). So they’re doing well there.

Spirit: What do the Tigers have to do to win this game on the road at Ole Miss against a nationally-ranked team?

Phil: “They have to establish the run. The run game is much better. No. 22 Doroland Dorceus has been not a surprise but he has shown toughness and also the ability to bust the big play. He can give them some tough inside yards. If they can keep the chains moving and not have a whole lot of three and outs, that will help. They’ve been pretty good protecting the football so far this year. The game at UCLA did so much for their ability to think they belong on the field with top programs. You can hear that to a man. They had the ball and were driving for possibly the tying or go-ahead score in the closing minutes at the Rose Bowl. That all comes into play now as they get ready for this game.”

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